Review of Three Recent Geopolitical Studies by Bert Chapman

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Phil Kelly.  Classical Geopolitics:  A New Analytical Model.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8047-9664-4.

Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell. The Unquiet Frontier:  Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power. Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-16375-8.

Jeremy Black. Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2016. ISBN: 0-253-01868-4

The first quarter of 2016 sees the emergence of a triumvirate of works by accomplished scholars on geopolitics which are worth contemplating by those studying this multifaceted and interdisciplinary subject.   These works take varying approaches to their topic with Kelly emphasizing a scholarly and theoretical perspective, Grygiel emphasizing emerging geopolitical threats the U.S. is facing as a result of Obama Administration retreating from existing international obligations and commitments; and the historical nature of Black’s work emphasizing how geographical factors influence quests for international dominance.

Kelly’s treatise aspires to present an analytical model for introducing geopolitics.  Objectives for this work include striving to construct a classical geopolitical model, demonstrating classical geopolitics’ utility and legitimacy as an important international relations model,  showing classical geopolitics’ benefits by presenting a standard definition of geopolitics, locating relevant theories legitimizing the traditional geopolitical model, and determining how theories attaching themselves to geopolitics provide insights on foreign affairs actions, events, and policies.  Kelly defines classical geopolitics as “the study of the impact or influence of certain geographic features…positions and locations of regions, states, and resources plus topography, climate, distance, immigration, states’ sizes and shapes, demography, upon states’ foreign policies and as an aid to statecraft.[i]

Kelly analyzes how historical and contemporary scholars, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Simon Dalby, Klaus Dodds, Halford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Gearóid Ố Tuathil, representing both classical and critical geopolitical methodologies, have presented and analyzed geopolitical theories and methodologies.  Assorted geopolitical historical approaches analyzed by Kelly include Karl Haushofer’s German or Munich Geopolitik of the 1920s and 1930s with antecedents in work by Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén; Cold War containment or power politics of the mid-twentieth century stressing the west achieving a balance of power to stop Soviet and Chinese expansionism; postmodernist critical geopolitics originating in the 1970s and 1980s within many academic sectors challenging classical geopolitics by attacking its alleged racism, imperialism, and capitalist orientations by seeking to “deconstruct” scripts favoring these concepts, and classical geopolitics seeking to emphasize rationality in national security and foreign policymaking; and the critical importance of geographic features including rivers, coasts, latitudes, and national borders play in determining countries domestic and international policies.

Classical political theories analyzed by Kelly include core-periphery such as Mackinder’s central Eurasian heartland and South America’s Charcas Heartland; pivotal geopolitical structures including checkerboards, shatterbelts, encirclement, spheres of influence, offshore balancing, buffer states, and choke points; borders and frontiers emphasizing land-locked countries; natural borders such as mountains and deserts; the greater presence of strife among heavier populated and more commercialized borders; the importance of physical spaces in the geopolitics of countries as divergent as Germany, Britain, the United States, Brazil, Russia, and China; how immigration can influence countries geopolitical perspectives; and the influence of wealth, poverty, natural disasters, climate change, pollution, pandemics, and natural resource scarcities on countries geopolitical perspectives and policies.

Kelly ultimately favors legitimizing geopolitical study by placing greater emphasis on classical as opposed to critical geopolitics; separating geopolitics from the model of realism by encouraging countries to balance with allies against threatening neighbors; clarifying and agreeing upon an appropriate definition of geopolitics; agreeing on essential parts to a model of geopolitics; collecting and refining classical geopolitical as assumptions, concepts, and theories such as understanding that countries relative positions will affect their international behavior; and recognizing that geographic location can give some countries advantages in providing for isolation, protection, mobility, and maneuverability; and collecting and refining applications within the geopolitical model along with organizing a support group of classical geopolitical proponents to advance these aspirations.

This work is geared toward a scholarly instead of popular audiences.  Its strengths include advocating classical geopolitics as a viable and effective standard for analyzing international relations, solid analysis of geopolitics role in shaping the U.S.’ early political development, and coverage of Latin American geopolitical developments.  The work is weakened by the author’s naïve assertion that the UN Charter can serve as an effective collective security response to Russia’s Ukrainian aggression,[2] the need to include the East China Sea as a shatterbelt[3],[3] and not giving enough attention to Australia’s importance in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Kelly is right to support advocating the Mackinder Forum’s role as a promoter of classical geopolitical analysis.  He should go beyond this to recommend this entity expand its social media outreach and cultivate relationships with broadcast media to enable forum participants to regularly appear on news programs to present the validity of classical geopolitics as a way of analyzing current international foreign policy and security developments.  For instance, The Mackinder Forum should also include information on how political candidates use or misuse geopolitics in their political campaigns.[4]

Jakub Grygiel’s and A. Wess Mitchell’s The Unquiet Frontier emphasizes the U.S.’ declining international geopolitical and strategic position as being a direct consequence of U.S. retrenchment during the Obama Administration.  They emphasize that rising powers such as China, Iran, and Russia seek to probe the U.S. and its allies to see how resistant they are to their aggressive aspirations and intent.   Particular emphasis is placed on how China has been sagacious in picking geographical objectives such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea which are important to U.S. allies but less important to the U.S. to invest political, diplomatic, and military capital to defend.  Russian probing has been demonstrated by attacking Ukraine and coercing exposed NATO members such as the Baltic Republics which are not of direct interest to the U.S. but of acute strategic interest and import to geographically adjoining countries including Poland.  The overall effect of these probes is seeking to cause U.S. allies to doubt whether Washington will defend them if and when their vital interests are threatened by revisionist powers.[5]

Grygiel and Mitchell recommend the U.S. respond to these probing attempts by using allies as forward bases to enhance U.S. responsiveness to emerging global crises in regions including Central Europe, the Middle East, and East and Southeast Asia.  Possessing such forward basing drastically reduces U.S. forces transit time, provides airfields and ports for refueling, prepositioning troops and stocks of ammunition and supplies, and offering multiple routing options which are critical in wartime.  They also recommend the U.S. should develop wall and insurgency approaches to deter and repel revisionist powers aggressive aspirations.  Specific examples of these approaches include stopping probing states offensives at the border and inflicting costs on hostile power projection.  These can be accomplished by anti-air defenses, weapons pre-placement including portable anti-tank weapons, anti-personnel mines, guided mortar munitions, enhancing training in small unit attacks and guerilla warfare, and interdicting navigation between the bases of revisionist powers and newly acquired maritime spaces such as islands by enhancing anti-ship missile, mine, and submarine warfare capabilities.[6]

This insightful and prescient treatise should be required reading for presidential candidates, congressional candidates genuinely interested in foreign policy and national security, and other policymakers and citizens concerned with emerging international security challenges.

Prodigiously prolific scholar Jeremy Black examines the historical and contemporary importance of spatial dimensions as they relate to state policy, power, and strategy.  Topics addressed within this work include geopolitics before the widespread emergence of maps in the 17th and 18th centuries; the geopolitics of British power between 1500-1815; geopolitics and imperialism in the nineteenth century and the twentieth century until 1932; Nazi geopolitics and World War II, Cold War era geopolitics between the United States and the Soviet Union; post-1990 geopolitics; and geopolitics of the future.

Black sees geopolitics growing importance in recent decades by stressing the significance of geographical and cultural factors in the war against Islamist terror and Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.  He also stresses the increasing importance of rapid population growth, resource availability, climate change, and pandemics as factors affecting emerging geopolitical trends which will have local, regional, and global impacts.[7]

Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance rightly stresses the importance of the state as a preeminent factor in shaping geopolitical trends and developments, stressing “it is far from clear that effective governance can be organized in alternative forms to that of the conventional state”[8].  Black also stresses how the explosive and exponential growth in communications technologies affects geopolitics, discusses how relations between China and the U.S. will remain a critical indicator of international geopolitical trends, and the continuing relevance of Mackinder’s ideas to contemporary and future geopolitical analysis.

Black also pays some attention to “critical geopolitics” and criticizes its uncompromising pretentiousness.  His work could be strengthened by denouncing this strain of “thought” for promoting moral equivalence between dictatorial and democratic states and transnational organizations, its exaltation of a perpetual victim narrative and poisonous group identity politics in international political analysis and debate, and more vociferously denounce the feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, and poststructural tenets of this worldview which provide fraudulent and deceptive answers to historical and contemporary problems to gullible readers.

This triumvirate of works provides, on balance, generally illuminating and insightful reading on emerging geopolitical issues.  Important derivatives they provide include Kelly’s promoting new scholarly research agendas in history and foreign policy, using Grygiel to assess specific narratives and theories to understand current geopolitical scenarios, and Black’s emphasis on the historical background played by security and dominance in geopolitics.  Brendan Simms Europe:  The Struggle for Supremacy From 1453 to the Present also provides illuminating analysis on the role of dominance in international relations.[9]  They contribute partial antidotes to the dismissive panglossian sentiment about the critical role played by geography in international affairs and security characterizing the U.S. during the Obama Administration’s feckless and apology ridden Zeitgeist with Grygiel and Mitchell’s work being most immediately germane to international political and strategic issues facing the U.S. in 2016 and beyond.

Professor Bert Chapman, Government Information, Political Science, & Economics Librarian, Purdue University Libraries

[The opinions expressed herein are Bert Chapman’s and not those of the Mackinder Forum.  Copyright, Bert Chapman.]

[i] Phil Kelly, Classical Geopolitics:   A New Analytical Model, (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2016):  ix.

[2] Ibid., 147-148.

[3] Ibid., 151.

[4] See Marco Rubio, “Restoring America’s Strength:  My Vision for U.S. Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, 94 (5)(September/October 2015):  108-115; “Wednesday’s GOP Debate Transcript, Annotated,” Washington Post, (September 16, 2015):  17;; (Accessed May 4, 2016); and Charlotte Alter, “Transcript:  Read the Full Text of the Republican Debate in Milwaukee,” Time, (November 11, 2015):  38;; (Accessed May 4, 2016).

[5] Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell. The Unquiet Frontier:  Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power, (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2016):  56.

[6] Ibid., 146 and 181-184.

[7] Jeremy Black, Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance, (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2016): 260-262.

[8] Ibid., 272.

[9] Brendan Simms, Europe:  The Struggle for Supremacy From 1453 to the Present, (New York:  Basic Books, 2013).